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People Skills

Five reflections on 20 years of marriage

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Today I celebrate 20 years of marriage and it only seemed right to briefly meditate on what I have learned and am still trying to learn. I could write and write for hours on this topic, but I thought a handful of reflections would be worth sharing as a way to encourage one another:

1. Marriage is fragile – treat it accordingly: One of my most flawed assumptions going into marriage was that the emotional strength of our mutual commitment to one another could be taken for granted as an abiding axiom. But I was so wrong about that. The normal trials of life – not to mention the exceptional trials of life, put our emotions and our commitments to the test. And the truth is that at all times – especially during those difficult times we have to be gentle and careful with one another. This is not easy to do when frustration is high and disagreements and disappointments run deep. We’re often the hardest on those we love the most. That’s why keeping the fragility of the relationship in view is so important. If you’re carrying a precious glass vase in your hand, you do not make thoughtless and careless moves. You constantly hold it with an understanding that the wrong move could cause a break.

2. Marriage is also anti-fragile – stress can be good: This is a category coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.” His thesis is that we can categorize different things in life as fragile (likely to break under stress), robust (likely to withstand stress), and antifragile (things that grow stronger with the right amount of stress). I love this paradigm as it relates to marriage, because there is a sense in which the right kinds of stresses result in a more bonded marriage. Conflicts, tribulations, and crises can be real opportunities to gain relational depth if we will allow them to bend and shape us instead of breaking us. And be prepared – the paradox of life is that the greatest blessings also bring the greatest challenges. I’m talking about children, of course. Almost nothing else can bring the depth and connectedness that children can – but believe me when I say they will kick you and your relational weaknesses in the face. But this isn’t bad. It is anti-fragility at work. Embrace the stress like you embrace a good workout.

3. Fragile + Antifragile = get marriage counseling: It’s inevitable – you will find yourself out-matched and out-gunned by the normal conflicts and stresses that come with married life. We would all love to think we’re incredibly well-adjusted folks with the people skills to navigate the complexities, but what an epic delusion. We’re all basically broken and stupid in our own ways. So put life’s twists and turns plus your mutual foibles in a bottle and shake ’em up – you’re going to need help. It took me too long to figure this out and when I did I had no idea what was awaiting us… Actually, that’s not quite right. I knew – we all have our box on the shelf. The box we don’t open. The hurts, the problems, the stuff – lots of stuff. You’re going to have to face your box o’ stuff. Notice I said your stuff. Not just your spouse’s stuff… yours. And man, who wants do to that? No one – that’s who. But weighed in the balance of the alternatives, it is worth doing. 100%. Getting real with yourself is always tough, but always good. Get after it sooner than later. Pay attention to the signals, don’t ignore them – and most importantly, get professional help. After all, you’re fragile and anti-fragile, my friend.

4. The Goldilocks Zone of expectations – shift happens: If your relational expectations of one another are too low, there is a real danger of creating cynicism and distance. But if they are too high, you will create a false idol that leads to a vicious cycle of disappointment. You’ve got to find a not too hot, but not too cold place for your expectations to live. Our spouse is our life partner, our best friend, our confidante and lover. But if they become a god who is supposed to fill-up all of your emotional, intellectual, physical desires… you’ve got trouble with a capital “T.” If you’re feeling relationally adrift, there may indeed be problems. But the problem may very well start with expecting too much from the other person – and not enough from yourself. If you want to raise the bar on your marital Goldilocks Zone, start by raising the bar on yourself. Guys, help out around the house, bring home some flowers, do something thoughtful and spontaneous. Ladies, give your man an extra squeeze and flirtatious glance – tell him how much you appreciate him. The bar can be raised – the Goldilocks Zone can shift, but it is an on-going and never-ending project that likely starts with YOU.

5. Grace upon grace – Jesus matters: Marriage is one of the most wonderful, enjoyable, maddening, and difficult gifts of life. And I don’t believe this bundle of paradoxes is a mere human convention – I think it is something God embedded into humanity as a way of bringing a taste of heaven to earth. The Apostle Paul enigmatically said that marriage is the embodiment of the relationship between Jesus and the church. This means that marriage is inherently redemptive and life-giving. But the Gospel teaches us that new life is predicated upon dying first. Death precedes resurrection. Gospel love is not a mystical experience of self-fulfillment or enlightenment. No, no. True love entails an act of radical self-giving. And that’s what it takes to stay married and to enjoy its benefits. It is about a life of grace – of living in unmerited and even de-merited favor. And the more you realize how much grace you need and that is available in every way, the more you’re able to give. To my mind, this makes pursuing Jesus central to experiencing marriage as it is intended to be. People can manage to be married and stay married without Jesus, I get it. In the parlance of theologians, marriage is a creational ordinance that is not restricted to Christians or religious people. But what I’m saying is this – the mysterious depths of marriage are best plumbed in the light of the One who created it – by the God who is love. With Jesus jointly in view, the possibility of seeing dimly through the veil of heaven is ours.

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